There has been lots of talk about something called "executive functioning" and how important it is. Take this 2019 Stanford-led study by Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Jelena Obradović for example. The study identified what factors keep kids resilient.
According to Obradović, “We chose to study executive functions because they’re an important set of skills that promote adaptation and resilience. They’ve become a good marker for children’s capacities.”
Since everyone is talking about it now, you're probably wondering what executive functioning actually means.
What Is Executive Functioning
Here's the definition of executive functioning as per the most trusted resource out there (and certainly not the most prone to random people editing information online), Wikipedia:
Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.
Executive functioning lets us be disciplined enough to work towards a certain goal without getting side-tracked. For example, if we were studying for a test and aiming for a grade A, we would make sure to have enough self-control and focus to keep studying instead of getting distracted.
When we break down executive functioning, we get some specific skills that Harvard highlights as "the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully". Namely skills like, planning, working memory, self-control, self-awareness, attention, flexibility, and drive. These skills build up the core of what helps us function effectively and progress in today's world.
Can you recall coming across any of the following situations?
- Forcing yourself to get through a task even though you want to watch the latest new episode of your favorite show?
- Listening to someone talk even though what they are saying is boring you to death?
- Failing to do something but decided to try again?
- Remembering a large amount of information without noting it down?
Well, guess what? These situations all rely on executive functioning!
We would all probably agree that this is a core capability, not just in the context of studies but for all the endeavors we have in life. So how do we develop it?
Executive Functioning at Different Ages
Harvard published a list of activities and games that can positively impact someone's executive functioning. But the list is different for different age groups. We will be looking at three groups - 5 to 7 years old, 7 to 12 years old kids and adolescents.
These groups have very different focuses. Think back to when you were 7 years old, were your goals in life the same as when you became a teenager? Most probably not. Since our priorities keep shifting as we grow older, we need different approaches for each age group.
In order to decide what kind of games suit each age group, we need to understand what the focus for each age group is.
>Source: Potato Pirates
Even though there are overlaps in which skills matter for each age-group, there is a trend in terms of the kind of skills that are developed at each age. As we grow older, we learn how to improve ourselves and how to solve or adapt to problems. This prepares us for situations we will come across as we start making more independent decisions and interacting with more people.
In fact, Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, mentioned the importance of the right mindset in having a successful life. She mentions the power of a "Growth Mindset" and how one can get this mindset.
She is not the only one who thinks such a mindset leads to success. Countless academics and professionals have expressed why they think a growth mindset is better compared to a fixed mindset.
>Source: Recreation of Infographic by Nigel Holmes on brainpickings
While a fixed mindset holds one back from learning and improving their skills, the growth mindset allows one to, like the name says, grow and learn from challenges.
It's easy, however, for one to claim that they already have a growth mindset or that their executive functioning is great. But here's the catch, if you think you already have all the skills you need, you are leaning towards the fixed mindset! Did that blow your mind? Of course, it did.
Games for Executive Functioning
A lot of people would assume that learning these skills would be a boring or tiring task but here's the thing, executive functions can be built on fun activities such as sports and learning music. Although we associate games with leisure or health, it can also be useful in teaching life skills and lessons, especially to kids.
That is why if you search up activities to teach kids executive functioning, you would find that there are quite a number of games mentioned.
Take the board game "Battleship" for example. The game allows for players to carefully plan and direct their attention to different areas of their map in order to prevent their ships from getting destroyed. It also lets them develop selective attention as they need to keep track of where the enemy ships might be located.
Games for 5 to 7 Years OldAt this age, a challenge can help children develop skills, so we choose games that are hard but not too difficult for each child.
Left image Source: Wikipedia - Rush Hour (puzzle)
This ThinkFun game uses a lot of strategic thinking and cognitive flexibility. The idea behind it is simple - get the car out of the traffic jam. But the puzzles that the game provides really challenge players into thinking of different ways to solve them.